An intricate allegory of wisdom and enlightenment but ultimately of corruption and the struggle for power.
Although Tejpal starts the story with his narrator under siege, his life threatened by the Wafadars (a warrior clan to be feared), most of the narrative is recounted in a long flashback as the narrator reviews his life and explains how he got into his current perilous situation. He takes us back to a serene valley in northern India, closed off from the world, in which he and some fellow pilgrims follow a path of stern discipline of body and mind. The guiding force behind life in this valley is Aum, named after the primal sound in the universe, a spokesperson for the values of peace and self-liberation. The narrator has both self-discipline and strong motivation to work through the hierarchy of possibility he’s offered, first to become a Pathfinder and ultimately a Wafadar, in which he would “[a]chieve the perfect union of the two, mind and body, till they uncurled as seamlessly one, as do living flesh and bone.” After strenuous exertion (and some channeled sensual self-indulgence), the narrator becomes a Wafadar, but this warrior class starts to become a powerful force in its own right, engaging in appalling acts of violence and predation. Eventually, the narrator, once the hunter, becomes the hunted.
Tejpal puts demands on the reader both through the entanglements of his narrative and through the specialized vocabulary (e.g., the Mausoleum of Our Egos, the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses) he generates. The narrative will appeal to readers who delight in allegory that is political, philosophical and convoluted.